Waste and Void: The 2019 Wildfires and Jeremiah

Originally published in SAGE Magazine, February 2020

As a student of religions and ecology, the times I’ve spent in the tropics have afforded me a special affection for these places. While my own affections cannot compare to those of someone tied to a place by blood or birth, I’ve come to deeply appreciate the tropics for their role in ecology, religion, and culture – but also for their own rhythms and energies. As a Northeasterner used to extremes of light and dark, heat and cold, humid and dry, I love the sense of balance found in the tropics: the even day length, temperature, and flourishing of plant life that satisfies man and beast alike. Yet while I may find solace in stability, nature reminds me that no place is free from change.

One of the most meaningful concepts I’ve gained from my studies in ecology has been the role of disturbance. In an ecological sense, disturbances refer to weather, geological, or biological events that bring about change. Some disturbances are life-giving, such as episodic low-grade fires that rejuvenate forests or seasonal floods that nourish bottomlands. But some disturbances, called “lethal,” make it very difficult for life to grow again. In common terms, we could call these disturbances calamities.

Disturbances can have a human aspect too, of course. Colonialism, war, slavery, the plowing-under and paving-over of entire ecoregions are disturbances wrought by humans on one another and on our world. It is during these worst of disturbances that we humans call out to God, seeking meaning, solace, and even vengeance in our pain.

The combination of human and natural disturbances manifested with full force this winter as the rainforests of Australia ablaze in just the latest calamities sweeping across our world. I was fortunate to be spending my winter in Hawaii, nourishing my spirit in the rainy forests of the northern Hawaiian Islands (while dutifully learning their ecological history, of course). So hearing about terrible wildfires sweeping across another tropical rainforest felt oddly close, despite 5000 miles of ocean between us.

While fewer than thirty humans are known to have died as a result of Australia’s fires, entire towns have been destroyed, with thousands of fleeing survivors sheltering on beaches and even in the ocean itself. Australian ecologists estimate that some 500 million animals residing in these forests may have died, as animals have a hard time fleeing large-scale fires. Some species may now be functionally extinct. The scale and destructive force of the fires, burning nearly 30 million acres,[1] has been exacerbated by drought and by chronic disinvestment in fire-fighting forces and disaster response capabilities of the Australian government.

And this, just a few months after anthropogenic fires in the Amazonian rainforest burned some 300,000 acres of forestland.[2] When we add in California’s Kincade Fires and others, this has led many to say that 2019 was the year the world burned.

I’ve found myself asking, “Where is God in this?” What does this have to do with God’s plan? It’s easy to speculate, but hard to be right, at least on the level of human understanding. Sometimes, people view calamities as Divine retribution for human wrongdoing; sometimes, as a warning to change our ways before worse consequences unfold. Inasmuch as these things are understandable at all, I can try on the latter view better than I can the former. Warnings and foreshadows of future trends can be understood from a standpoint of science and politics, as well as of faith. Wildfires now are an indication of future trends: a warning to change, before it’s too late.

Disturbances and calamities are not limited to ecosystems, of course; human societies also experience them. The onslaught of colonialism in the Americas and beyond was a calamity, still unfolding today. In the United States, we face renewed threats feared to bring about calamities in our populace, our environment, and perhaps even our national existence itself. Today, as in the past, resistors call out Awake, Change! Looking back into human history, poets, artists, and mystics have named God’s presence in these terrible moments, writing their shock, grief, and rage into history.

Rangeland burns in Australia, December 2019. Image credit: New York Times

Lately I’ve spent time with the preserved words of ancient Jewish mystics and prophets who sought to warn their countrymen of what would befall them if they continued to perpetuate an unjust and violent society. Their words ring perennially as warnings against societal cruelty and exploitation. Jeremiah, among the most famous of the Jewish prophets, decried the selfishness and injustice of the elites in his time:

They have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the right of the needy. (Jeremiah 5:28)

As a result of this “wickedness,” Jeremiah foresaw tremendous destruction. Yet his words carry no spiteful glee or vindication; instead, they are full of sorrow.

I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;

    and to the heavens, and they had no light.

I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,

    and all the hills moved to and fro.

I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,

    and all the birds of the air had fled. […]

Because of this the earth shall mourn,

    and the heavens above shall grow black. (Jeremiah 4:23-25, 28)

Although Jeremiah lived 2500 years ago, his warnings and lament ring today in a time when we, too, do our best to ignore the signs of our own pending downfall, wrought by our own hands. In a world made smaller by mass communication, the emotional pressure of calamities near and far weigh upon us from all sides. The burden of knowledge and grief is inescapable – making lament unavoidable.

The laments of Jeremiah and of many men and women whose words and names have not been recorded in history aided their fellow countrymen in coming to terms with the destruction that was taking place. Just as today, these must have included both people in denial of the injustices of their society, and people who were informed and longed for a better way. The poets of their time remind us that even when you can’t change or prevent the injustices taking place, witnessing to them in word and song is a meaningful act of love. Doing so gives voice to the human experience between love and loss. Sometimes the bravest thing we can do during endings is to lament. As brave as it is to try to prevent, to fix, to reclaim, as things change so quickly, it is perhaps braver still to put these urges on pause and simply recognize the changes taking place; to publicly name what is being lost. Loss, of course, is both individual and collective. Yet as losses seem to accelerate, it takes all of us to name them.

Burning Australia has been on my mind when I’ve stood at the ocean’s edge in Hawaii, its warm waves softly lapping my feet. On islands more than anyplace else, I am reminded that all life is the child of both fire and water. Fire – in the form of oceanic volcanoes – formed the rocks of these islands. Water, wind, and time eroded those rocks into soils. Wind- and water-borne seeds colonized those soils and brought them to life. The memory of fire dwells in these soils and in the patterns of exposed rock, yet it is the loving caress of water that once brought it to life. These waves, too, know love and loss. They have been lapping these shores for thousands of years. While they touch my feet with a soft caress today, just yesterday they were lashing the shore, sucking at sand and rock with a hunger that was almost frightening. Perhaps that force, too, is one of love. As the love of the prophets manifested in a forceful cry to Awake, Change!, perhaps the ocean’s lashing waves are an expression of her love. How much force do the waves need to leap up rocks and erode them into sand and soil? How much force does the ocean need to leap up the shore in Australia, cooling its fires and embracing her beloved children there?

Perhaps that’s where God is in this, too: in the witnessing and the naming that are acts of love. Perhaps He is in the soft caress of wave and breeze, acts of love, and in the fierce lashing of waves and raging of fires, bringing an end to the unjust societies as hard as stone. We can experience this ferocity both as deep pain and as blessed release. To those of us who stand by, watching, praying, or working to halt our society’s injustice before it’s too late, we must acknowledge the pain and grief of endings, with love.

[1] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-climate-change-australia-report/australias-massive-fires-could-become-routine-climate-scientists-warn-idUSKBN1ZD06W

[2] https://news.mongabay.com/2019/09/brazilian-amazon-fires-scientifically-linked-to-2019-deforestation-report/